We’d been warned about the trains. Or, to be more accurate, the stations. People with experience of Japan looked on us with pity, like raw recruits being sent over the top to impending doom. Ominous warnings were sounded and tales told of underground labyrinths teeming with commuters and the odd tourist rooted to the spot in awe and confusion.
But, you know what — that’s all been fine. Even the locals admit they need the aid of their smartphones to navigate the spider’s web of routes and destinations. Thankfully that technology has all but removed the need for unwieldy maps, and eliminated those awful moments of bewilderment and sheer terror for those of us just passing through. Translator apps have done much the same for all aspects of life here as a tourist.
No — it’s the hotels that confound.
Walking in the front door of some hotels in Tokyo is like reaching the North Cork border on a drive from Dublin to Bantry or Glengarriff: it may feel like you’re on the last lap, but the reality is you’re only halfway there. Some of the buildings could have their own postcodes.
Corridors the length of a football field. Receptions areas for receptions areas. If only Google Maps did interiors.
Trying to find press conferences are assignments in themselves. One journalist arrived at Ireland’s new base in Yokohama on Wednesday only to be told that, yes, the Irish team were residents but that, no, they could not divulge any more information. She should try working in sports PR.
All of which paled into insignificance when compared to the Scots. Gregor Townsend’s men are in a hotel that is one of at least three — we stopped counting at that point — with similar names all clustered into a sort of complex in a corner of Tokyo. It was, as our intrepid rugby correspondent Simon Lewis put it, like an eternal Kafkaesque nightmare, and finding evidence of the World Cup itself can sometimes be another unrewarding trip down a rabbit hole.
There were at least 50 Japanese journalists and photographers at the host nation’s press conference on Wednesday (though no English speakers and no translator either: thanks, World Rugby) but where all this material is published is another thing. Sumo continues to dominate the sports pages and, when it doesn’t, it’s usually because a baseball yarn has top billing.
Japan and Russia open the tournament here tonight (11.45am, Irish time) in Tokyo, but life goes on. The September sumo tournament will filter through to the last of its 15 days on Sunday and there is a full schedule of baseball and football fixtures to factor into a landscape that swallows events whole here, like a delicate parcel of sushi, regardless of your taste.
The Urawa Red Diamonds scraped through to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League on away goals against a Shanghai side containing Oscar and Marko Arnautovic and yet there was hardly a whisper of this home game in the capital or in the papers. Godzilla could level the Tokyo Tower and you wouldn’t hear a peep of it half an hour away as you gawp at the Shibuya Crossing.
Plenty of us have experienced a major sporting event in London in recent years and the manner in which it can disappear into the ether. That’s a greater-metropolitan area with just over eight million people. Tokyo has over four times that population
population. It is a sprawling mass of humanity and concrete that has to be seen to be believed.
It’s only now, since Ireland have decamped from Chiba to Yokohama on the far side of Tokyo, that this scope and size is becoming apparent, and the switch from what was a relatively quiet base to another that is much more alive and active has only heightened the sense that we are now on the cusp of the last big push. Chiba offered mostly shopping malls and convention centres.
Yokohama is a much more varied dish with its jazz scene, craft beer breweries, historic gardens, and its very own Chinatown. And amid all that is the sprinkling of accents, Irish and South African among them so far, as supporters arrive for four games across this next three days in the Tokyo region.
The only problem with being at a major tournament is that you tend to miss most of it.
Thankfully, then, arrangements have been made for the expected 400,000 visitors to purchase access to an online streaming service replete with English commentary. There won’t be any avoiding this World Cup for some of us.